SPORTSMEN, they say, are naturally sacrificial people. They use hours and hours of their time training and committing to something that is never guaranteed to give anything back.
Maurice Nicholas is simply deemed an extraordinary world-class sports personality. “A true servant of athletics,” as the title-head of his biography-book “Gently Yours”, speaks of a Singaporean who served half his life-time for global track and field.
Impossible you say but the 87-year-old sporting gentleman has clocked a mind-blowing 44 years before he finally called it quits as the General Secretary-Treasurer of the Asian Athletics Association (AAA).
Yes, I read that plenty of the sporting universe is self-serving, much of that sacrifice translates to a bigger picture. In team sports, it’s not all about the individuals. The people who understand that usually make up the best teams.
In his 250-page book, with an awesome array of black-and-white photos, he captures the vibrant scenes of international track and field, going back to his nostalgic days as a sprinter-schoolboy at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS).
“It’s worth my sacrifices, the blood, sweat and tears as I witnessed the growth of a sport I loved dearly and where I gave it more than my best shots,” says Maurice, who started coaching in 1959 and won Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) ‘Coach of the Year’ in 1972 for inspiring P.C. Suppiah and Kandasamy Jayamani, both named ‘Sportsman of the Year’ and ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ respectively.
As a journalist with four decades experience, I will swear that Maurice is one of the most modest sporting fellows I’ve ever met. His secret trademark is his self-respect and the way he respects people, whether they are royalties or VIPs, politicians, star-spangled athletes and coaches or ordinary men and women.
I must confess that I was thrilled to read “Gently Yours” because I finally get to know the widowed father of two wonderful women, Michelle and Sharon, and this ultra-modest gentleman, wrote these charming words when he signed off the book to me: “My good wishes always, Suresh…hope you get to know me better.”
Today, he stands mighty tall with the biggest names in the world of track and field, including Britain’s Lord Sebastian Coe and Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena, former Olympic mega-stars who have also moved on to sports administration at the highest levels.
Trace back Maurice’s humble beginnings from May 24 1932, born to a Sri Lankan father, a senior nurse, and a Chinese mother. No one ever believed that this little obscure boy from River Valley Road, who used to run around his ram-shackled neighbourhood in pre-war Singapore, would one day become one of the elder statesmen of global track and field.
For an ordinary schoolboy sprinter, who barely made the big cut as a national runner, he turned out to be a rousing award-winning middle-distance and long-distance coach. He confesses he learnt the early coaching ropes from the legendary Arthur Lydiard (the New Zealand coach whose most famous athlete was Peter Snell, the winner of the men’s 800m and 1,500m at both the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games).
Maurice recalls: “Lydiard’s solemn belief: If you want to be a world-class runner, just run, run, run, run. He would look closely at your legs and he will say you don’t have enough ‘miles’. He fanatically believed in mileage.”
STABLE OF CHAMPIONS
He went on to train some of Singapore’s best middle and long-distance athletes from P.C. Suppiah (who ran bare-footed in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1972 West Germany Olympic Games), Kandasamy Jayamani (the undisputed ‘queen’ of distance running in South-East Asia in the 1970s and 80s, who won five SEA Games gold medals and the accolade of ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ twice – in 1976 and 1980), Mirza Namazie, Harpal Singh, P. Pillai and K. Kumaravelu, to name a few stalwarts.
Maurice admits unabashedly that winning the ‘Coach of the Year’ award in 1972 was “one of my proudest lifetime moments”. He explains: “It is validation that even though I cannot be a top athlete, I can still be recognised as the best coach.”
His phenomenal rise on the tracks, administratively, started in 1965 as he took over as secretary of the-then SAAA (Singapore Amateur Athletics Association). And what seriously caught the eye, rather unconsciously, was his low-profile one-man-show at Farrer Park – then the home of athletics.
I remember how, sometimes with the help of his late wife Elizabeth Liau, most times even alone, Maurice would set up the chairs and tables, arranging the trophies and carrying out the mundane chores related to any major sports meet.
Little did he realise that his quiet behind-the-scenes efforts and dedication was quickly spotted by Jose Sering, then former Governor of the Surigao del Norte province of the Philippines, who was also President of the Philippines Track and Field Association. When he became the first President of the AAA (Asian Athletics Association) in 1973, he immediately picked Maurice.
He would later say: “I used to come to Singapore and I saw how hard this man worked. That’s why I instantly chose him as my right-hand man, much to the disappointment of many of my Filipino countrymen!”
That was the fiery start to the world of athletics and recognition and legacy followed and Maurice was awarded the elite IAAF Veterans Pin in 1982, He was also honoured with its Silver Order of Merit in 2004.
Looking back, he is ever grateful to his family, the genuine roots of his personal and professional success. From late Ipoh-born wife Elizabeth Liau Siew Chin, they tied the knot in 1958 and two bubbly daughters, Michelle and Sharon were born.
Despite his humble background and honesty in financial matters, he once told his wife that “I will bring you round the world”. And he didn’t let her down as she covered multiple segments of Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, especially when he started his global travel routines for the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation).
No beating round the bush for Maurice, who’s prudent for every cent and when he was entitled to travel on a business-class ticket as an IAAF official, he would choose to take two economy-class tickets instead so that his wife could travel with him. He smartly opted for the second arrangement – a decision which meant he could finally make good his promise as a young man to his beloved wife.
The biggest personal blow came in 2007 when Elizabeth died. But the last 12 years, he admits his daughters, Michelle and Sharon, three grand-sons and companion, Shoon Mei Leng, played decisive roles in the prolonged post-death recovery.
He’s got plenty to show, too, as he flicked on his global track and field memorabilia, painstakingly collected over more than half-century. You name it and Maurice has it like personal treasures from nostalgic old articles, photos, trophies, awards and multiple letters of commendation.
What endears Maurice to his local-born athletes in Singapore or sporting international contemporaries from Europe, Africa, Americas and Asia is his “exemplary sense of respect and love”.
I can’t describe but write here to say that he lives by the mantra, “Live and let live”…or maybe it’s just a matter of Maurice being guided by these lines that he once saw somewhere.
Olympian long-distancer P.C. Suppiah, the first Singaporean to complete the gruelling 10,000m in under 32 minutes – a stunning achievement, considering he ran the race without shoes – recalls how Maurice “cared for me like a father than a coach” even with “crucial supplements like Milo, milk and vitamins”. He explains: “Maurice even told me: ‘I take you as my son. Your work is to train. I will make you a champion!”
Tear-jerkingly, Suppiah, who was crowned SNOC ‘Sportsman of the Year 1972’, says: “These words meant a lot to me as I had lost my father at a very young age. He clearly demonstrated his parental instinct in so many concrete ways.”
‘I WAS FAMILY TO HIM’
Even five SEA Games gold-medal winning long-distance ace Jayamani says: “He went beyond the duties of a conventional coach and embraced me as family. His wife and two daughters, when I stayed with them, showered me with lots of love and care. They were strict with me too but I formed a special God-send bond with them. They’re forever family to me.”
Malaysia’s former Asian Games sprint champion Tan Sri Dr Mani Jegathesan, the Asian sprint king of the 1960s and 70s, says: “Maurice embodies in one man the qualities and attributes of friend, brother, comrade and father all rolled into one. And, very generously and graciously, he leaves these traits ready to be tapped as the situation warrants it.”
Dr Jegathesan adds: “His immensely successful international career has not changed in any way his endearing characteristics of humility, kindness, empathy and the highest levels of personal integrity.”
Former SNOC General Secretary S.S. Dhillon (the longest-serving SNOC boss from 1971 to 1995) ranks Maurice as “clearly one of the best officials in the world of track and field”. He adds: “I admire the way he continues to contribute to his beloved sport though he is way past the age for retirement. He’s a thorough gentleman, a good friend to many. An emotional guy who sheds tears easily simply because he has a genuine compassion for others.”
Glory Barnabas, now President of Singapore Masters Athletics (SMA), who was part of Singapore’s track and field “golden generation” that won numerous medals at the SEAP Games from 1965 to 1975, recalls how Maurice was one of the key founders of Swift Athletes Association, the earliest running club in 1947, which led the way for other competitive clubs like Achilles, Flash, Police and Armed Forces.
She vividly remembers in 1963 when Swift organised a trip to Sarawak to reward the top athletes. She says: “I was invited but my mother refused to let me go as my family had plans to visit India. I was devastated. He learnt of my situation and he visited my home to persuade my mother. Although he didn’t manage to convince her, I was grateful for Maurice’s help. He wasn’t my coach but he showed great compassion, knowing how much I wanted to join my fellow athletes.”
Retired sports journalist Hakikat Rai, a former schoolboy high hurdles champion (1968 and 1969) hails Maurice as a “consummate workaholic”. He praises: “He nary had a harsh word for his athletes, encouraging them, cajoling them, extolling them. They, in turn, were his dedicated followers, doing his every bidding and defending him stoutly in the face of criticisms, which I found out later in my career as a journalist with The Straits Times.”
The former longest-serving SAAA President over close to three decades (1981-2004 and 2006-2010), lawyer Loh Lin Kok, who enjoyed a 50-year friendship with Maurice, describes him as “one of Singapore’s best ambassadors in world athletics”.
He says: “He has gone where no Singaporean has gone before. He is very well respected for his track and field knowledge and skills. Best of all, he has remained the warm and humble guy we have always known him to be despite reaching the pinnacle of his career in sports administration with his role at the IAAF.”
Praises for Maurice’s sporting excellence go round the global shores with former IAAF President Lamine Diack (1999 to 2015), a Senegal millionaire-businessman, who hails him as the “backbone of Asian athletics and a key player in forming the Asian teams for many editions of the World Cup in track and field”. He salutes: “For me, he stands out for several traits. He’s a competent and excellent administrator and a first-class technical delegate. He is also someone who is always ready to help in whatever ways he can.”
Indonesian billionaire Bob Hassan, who served two terms as President of AAA (1991-2000) and personally sponsored Maurice’s book, “Gently Yours”, ranks him as “very humble, honest and diligent”. He says: “It’s close to impossible to find somebody like him who dedicates his whole life to track and field. His role as AAA Secretary-Treasurer was not just a job but a life-long passion. He had a sincere heart for those in the poorer countries. While no one is indispensible, I truly feel that whoever takes over from him will have very, very big shoes to fill.”
Indian Member of Parliament Suresh Kalmadi, President of AAA (2000 to 2013), says he draws a “lot of strength from Maurice as we work together on a range of initiatives to promote regional athletics”. He adds: “He’s simply a fine human being and a truly great friend and as a member of the IAAF and AAF team, he makes a very big difference”.
Lord Sebastian Coe, a British politician and former track and field athlete who won four Olympic medals, including the 1500 metres gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, says: “Maurice’s contributions to our great sport has been immense – both in creating opportunities for Asian athletes and in developing the support networks on the ground for coaches and administrators. He has at all times been generous with his time, his commitment and his loyalty to athletics”.
As I close the interview I ask him how he’d sum up his life-long success story after 44 years in track and field? Maurice smiles, with ultimate humility, and says: “I simply followed my heart with a dream-come-true passion in athletics which burnt brightly from the start.”
Yes, he did it as the biography-book exemplifies: “GentlyYours” since his international stints as AAA Secretary-Treasurer in 1973 and IAAF Council Member in 1981 which he terms as “some of the highest points in my career”.
He holds me back and reminds me to cite two staff at the AAA (Asian Athletics Association) Secretariat in Singapore – Regina Ang Bee Lee and A. Shuggumarran, the latter took over this month from Maurice’s AAA secretary portfolio. He says: “They’ve been with me for close to two decades. I literally have only two of them and we have to monitor some 50 AAA member-countries. You can imagine the amount of work they have to do. Yet they never complain.”
While Maurice worked for three decades from a humble HDB-furnished apartment-office in Hougang, a public housing estate, since 1987, Shuggumarran started this month at the new ultra-modern headquarters in Thammasat Stadium, a venue built for the 1998 Asian Games, located on Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus near the Thai capital.
Time flies. But the humble gentleman in Maurice Nicholas seldom changes. It probably boils down to his “gently yours” prescription to work and life. About a simple Made-in-Singapore sports fanatic who does good things – quietly and gently – as a wonderful colleague, special mentor and faithful friend.
In ending, let me reiterate that Maurice is a world-class example of a naturally sacrificial human, who used thousands of hours of his time training and committing to something that is never guaranteed to give anything back. – SURESH NAIR
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has known Maurice Nicholas for over four decades. He simply lives and breathes athletics and ranks him as the world’s longest-serving sporting official with the Arthur Lydiard style of track mileage of “run, run, run, run”